Each preseason there are a handful of stories that come out of training camp that sent shockwaves throughout the fantasy football world. In most cases it’s a season-ending injury to a fantasy star. Sometimes a player decides to retire unexpectedly. And let’s not forget those rare instances that a top wide receiver causes a media circus by acting like a jerk.
This year’s training camp is only a couple weeks old, but we’ve already had our first colossal story. The dateline is Denver. The story is the running back competition. The plot is as thick as Ron Dayne’s thighs. The hero is Mike Bell.
Who is Mike Bell?
According to head coach Mike Shanahan, Mike Bell is the starting running back for the Denver Broncos. But let’s back up for a minute.
Bell is a nobody. Or at least he was. He didn’t get picked in April’s rookie draft and didn’t land in Denver until a week later.
While classmates like Reggie Bush held out for fat contracts climbing well above $50 million, Bell inked a deal worth $20,000.
He came into camp looking for a chance to earn a roster spot as a special teams contributor and climb his way up the chart. It didn’t take long for Bell to make an impression. Displaying power, quickness, and intelligence, the 6’1” 218 lb. running back catapulted himself above veterans Ron Dayne and Tatum Bell in a matter of 10 days.
Why didn’t he get drafted?
Bell was a solid prospect coming out of college. He finished his five-year career at Arizona with 3,157 yards rushing, a 4.7 yards-per-carry average, and 17 touchdowns. He was a two-time team captain. One ESPN scouting report said he “looks the part of a premier NFL back.”
So how does one go from college star to un-drafted free agent? A couple factors caused Bell’s value to dip.
First, he had a bad performance at the combine. Bell was clocked 4.63 and 4.65 seconds in his 40-yard-dash times. By NFL standards, that’s a snail’s pace. In comparison, fellow classmates who performed for scouts were much faster. Bush posted a 4.33 time. Carolina’s DeAngelo Williams clocked in at 4.40. Detroit third-round pick Brian Calhoun ran it in 4.38 seconds. Bell also fell short in other tests like the shuttle run, three-cone drill, vertical jump, etc.
Perhaps even more importantly, his college career was a disappointment. A highly-recruited prospect coming out of college, Bell never rushed for more than 1,000 yards in a season.
Many feel that turmoil on the coaching staff is largely to blame for Bell’s lack of production. When Bell came to Arizona, John Mackovic was the head coach. Mackovic’s strange and scary behavior resulted in a players' revolt in 2002. It got so bad that ESPN reported that more than a dozen Wildcat players were seeing a campus psychiatrist to cope with their coach’s behavior.
After Mackovic was fired in 2003, many key players quit the team and the new staff had to rebuild. The shift impacted continuity, particularly on the offensive line. As a result, Bell finished out his career with Arizona with questionable talent surrounding him.
Did Bell warrant a draft pick? Probably. But within a week after the draft, he had four teams pursuing him, so it’s not as if he was a complete unknown.
How did he climb to #1 on the depth chart?
The short answer is he’s been the best running back on the team through the first week and a half of training camp.
It’s been clear since day one that Bell has a bit of a chip on his shoulder about not being drafted. "To be passed up by everybody, that kind of hurt me,” said Bell. “I'm trying to show everyone what they're missing." In that regard, he’s succeeded. Bell has shown a lot of intensity and hasn’t shied away from contact.
Veterans have been quick to point out that their rookie teammate is not afraid to mix it up, and that’s earning their respect. Bell’s willingness to be physical is perhaps the main reason he’s made such a quick climb to the top of the depth chart.
Even Ron Dayne, the guy he supplanted for the top slot applauded Bell’s passion and physicality saying, “If I was a coach and I was watching, I'd have probably picked Mike, too.” Dayne added that Bell had been “killing” in practice.
In addition to the work ethic Bell has shown, he’s also making some good strong runs. After one morning practice, Shanahan commented, "Mike's having a heck of a camp. He really has stepped up and has been very impressive. A lot of players see him making plays that they haven't seen for awhile.” Fans, too, have been excited about Bell and have given him raucous ovations after some of his runs.
One aspect of the game that rookie RBs are often slow to pick up is pass protection. According to Shanahan, Bell has done a bang-up job picking up oncoming pass rush. Continued success in this area will be critical to Bell’s fantasy value. It doesn’t seem to be an issue at this point, but it bares watching.
What is his running style?
If you’re looking to draw comparisons between Bell and a current or former NFL running back, think Dorsey Levens. Like Levens, Bell is a versatile running back who isn’t among the NFL’s elite in any one facet of the game. Instead, he brings to the table a combination of agility, power, quickness, balance, change of direction, and natural hands.
Bell isn’t going to win many footraces in the open field. However, he gets up to his top speed quickly and his good vision and shiftiness. He runs with a slightly upright style that could open him up to punishment.
Why will he keep the job?
Bell’s versatility and smarts make him an excellent fit for the Denver offense. He catches passes well out of the backfield—a weakness of Ron Dayne. He’s a tough, inside runner who can pick up the first down—a weakness of Tatum Bell.
Bell is built from the same mold as some of the other Broncos running backs who have had so much success in the past decade. Guys like Terrell Davis and Mike Anderson earned their paychecks because they fit the system as “one-cut” running backs. So too does Bell, who takes no wasted steps and does not hesitate or dance when making his cuts.
In addition, he’s got that “Shanahan-guy” feel about him that’s tough to put your finger on. He’s a smart, confident, passionate running back, who is very coachable and will work hard every minute of camp. It will not be surprising if he’s the starter on September 10.
Why will he lose the job?
I see three scenarios that could cause Bell to fall back down into a relief role for the Broncos.
First, Bell could get into a fumbling funk. Leading up to the NFL draft, Pro Football Weekly labeled Bell as a “chronic fumbler.” During his career at Arizona, he coughed up the football regularly and cost his team some games. On more than one occasion, he had multiple fumbles in a game.
There’s no better way for a running back to end up in a coach’s doghouse than putting the ball on the ground. In 2004, Mike Shanahan gave Quentin Griffith the hook after a couple inopportune fumbles (along with some other performance issues). Watch Denver’s preseason games like a hawk. If Bell fumbles, don’t be surprised if Shanahan makes a quick depth chart change.
Second, Ron Dayne could wrestle the job away from Bell. One thing about Dayne is that he’s always been a steady performer in the preseason. In 2004, Dayne led the NFL with four preseason touchdowns and ranked second in rushing yardage with 263 yards. Another solid preseason effort would go a long way in helping Dayne reclaim the starting spot.
The competition is far from over. After announcing that Bell would be the team’s #1 RB for the first preseason game, Shanahan indicated the dust hadn’t settled just yet. "It was very close, and it could change day by day, week by week, but we felt that Mike deserves a chance to work with the first team and to take a look-see if we can keep him," Shanahan said.
Finally, Bell could get hurt. While he’s played relatively injury-free throughout his career, Bell has a bit of an upright running style that leaves NFL rushers susceptible to injury (see Chris Brown). It’s worth noting though that Bell’s toughness and intensity make him the type of player who will have to be dragged to the bench by the medical staff.